The holiday season is a harbinger of many gifts. But on Christmas Eve in 1964, the world was bestowed an especially auspicious and enduring gift when Wayne Shorter stepped into the studio to record his third studio album for Blue Note Records, Speak No Evil. As children slept and visions of sugar plums danced in their heads, Shorter and Co. explored ideas “of misty landscapes with wild flowers. . . the kind of places where folklore and legends are born.”
For Wayne Shorter’s first two albums for Blue Note, Night Dreamer and Juju, he was propped up by the rhythm section of McCoy Tyner (p), Reggie Workman (b), and Elvin Jones (d), drawing many comparisons to John Coltrane and hampering critical reception to some degree. So for his third effort, he called on trumpeter Freddie Hubbard (a former colleague in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers) and enlisted the help of pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter (his new bandmates in the Miles Davis Quintet) while retaining Elvin Jones for the drum chair. Though not a working band, you’d be hard-pressed to arrange a more impressive roster of musicians.
As important as the personnel are Shorter’s compositions on the album. Shorter was already an accomplished composer by 1964 having been music director for the Jazz Messengers – making him the primary songwriter for the group – and having submitted several works for various other projects. Speak No Evil features a full program of Wayne Shorter originals, but more than that, it comprehensively documents Shorter’s mature style and is a prime example of the post-bop medium. Each tune on the album has been adopted into the canon as a jazz standard: “Witch Hunt,” a provocative quartal blues head with a modal sensibility; “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum,” a very pleasing melody that belies it’s rich, complex harmonic undercurrents; “Dance Cadaverous,” a dark and heady waltz with a mysterious melodic concept, always unsure of where the maze will turn next; “Speak No Evil,” the title track that goes beyond the simplicity of tunes like “So What” to expand the possibilities of modal exploration; “Infant Eyes,” Shorter’s gorgeous ballad inspired by his then-infant daughter, presented in three nine-bar phrases (going far outside the boundaries of standard song forms); and “Wild Flower,” another jazz waltz that highlights sonorous harmonies in the horn lines but masterfully avoids any conventional resolutions. While Shorter’s works explore a lot of bold new compositional ideas, they remain rich with blues sounds and sensibilities, making them exciting vehicles for improvisation.
Today, these works continue to be performed and recorded regularly, and are remembered as some of Wayne Shorter’s greatest achievements. As we look back on 2023, we grieved Wayne Shorter’s passing. But in this holiday season, we may also look back to Christmas Eve 1964, when Shorter spawned a great deal more than simply a “classic” album. Celebrate Shorter’s achievement by gifting a copy of Speak No Evil to a jazz lover you know, and hear these and many more Wayne Shorter originals all through the year on Jazz 93.5.